Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame closing the gap, Brian Kelly's role in recruiting

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Almost a year after the COVID-19 pandemic redefined Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s job description and gutted his budget, the soon-to-be 67-year-old embraces any normalcy that comes his way.

Even if at times it becomes a little overfamiliar.

In this two-part Q-and-A with the man who will complete his 13th year on the job this summer, among the topics we’ll explore are the two most trending involving Notre Dame football — closing the gap with College Football Playoff bullies Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, as well as Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s vision for recruiting and his role in it.

Future scheduling priorities and the state of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex expansion project are also included in the discussion.

In Part II on Monday, Swarbrick shares his take on a look at Irish athletics through the COVID lens, including whether there will be spectators at the Blue-Gold Game, what the 2021 Notre Dame Stadium experience might be like and how soon the football program’s winter workout hiatus might end.

Swarbrick also puts a finer point on some name, image and likeness issues, including why he chose this past week to take a stand on ND excluding itself for now from the developing EA Sports College Football video game.

Q: When you hear that phrase — “closing the gap” — how realistic is it? How does Notre Dame get there?

Jack Swarbrick: “The gap dynamic is an interesting one, to discuss it. And in a way it doesn’t matter until we win a national championship. I mean that’s our goal.

That’s what we need to do. And nobody associated with this athletic department or our football program shies away from that. So we’re focused every day on: What do we have to do to win a national championship?

“I’m not thrilled with ‘the gap’ discussion, just because I don’t think the competitive results in the past two years that we’ve been in the playoffs necessarily demonstrate that.

“In both semifinals that we lost, we played the eventual national champion closer than the team that played them in the championship game. And no one’s saying there’s a gap there. No one’s saying, ‘Well, Ohio State has this gap to Alabama.’

“So I recognize the differences. Those other programs have won recently and we haven’t. And we need to win one. But I think the gap discussion is a little overdone. There was a gap in ’12. You could see it when both teams took the field.

“When I look at things now like the quality of both lines of scrimmage and depth, especially, I feel great about where we are. Element by element in the program, I can look at a number of these things and say, ‘We’re doing really well.’

“And so those don’t feel like gap dynamics to me. Are there ways we need to and will get better? Absolutely. And we’ve got to do everything that we can to win a national championship.”

Brian Kelly (left) and athletic director Jack Swarbrick are in sync when it comes to the Notre Dame head football coach’s role in recruiting.

There’s a perception, and perhaps a matching reality, that Clemson and Alabama have these extremely large recruiting staffs, beyond coaches. How critical is that numbers game with recruiting positions? Does more always mean more?

JS: “We have to continue to invest in it, no question. And I think all the things Brian Kelly has done to focus on that area and help us get better have been important for us. So we’re going to continue to do that.

“It’s really hard to compare apples to apples. I caution people just to be a little careful when you hear the numbers — they’ve got ‘x’ graphic artists or they’ve got ‘x’ analysts in recruiting. Sometimes the gaps aren’t quite what they appear, because the businesses are structured differently.

“We may have somebody working on it that shows up as an FIM (Fighting Irish Media) employee, not somebody who works inside the football program — just to caution that sometimes they’re not what they appear. But I do think we have to continue to invest in recruiting and some of that’s personnel.”

Q: With that in mind, and with the tight athletic budgets, is there still wiggle room for expansion at this time?

JS: “During this period of time, it’s hard. There’s a hiring freeze at the university that we’re part of. So some of this is what you can do now with redeployments and reassignments. Part of it is planning for the future.”

Q: A primary focus among many in the fan base, especially lately, is head coach Brian Kelly’s involvement in recruiting. What are your thoughts about how involved you think the head coach needs to be throughout the process, not maybe just as a closer?

JS: “I think you’ve got to have a well-structured recruiting process that fits who you are. And the head coach has to be the central ingredient in that and is at Notre Dame.

“I think Brian Kelly does a phenomenal job of figuring out — with the help of the people who lead recruiting — how to best use his time and have an impact.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with not just the results, but his leadership of it. It’s not just a matter of somebody making a phone call. It’s more about: Is your head coach setting the tone, helping to set the direction for a really effective recruiting program? And I think Brian does that as well as anyone in the country.”

Q: New defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has come in and made quite an impression without having coached a game yet. What are your thoughts on how important that hiring was and his ability in recruiting to swing for the fences and have some success at that?

JS: “Let me start by saying I think the world of Marcus. I’ve been incredibly impressed by what he’s doing, and as I got to know him during the recruiting process, the hiring process, I felt like he was a perfect fit for Notre Dame in so many ways. So we’re excited to have him here.

“You benefit every time you bring in somebody new, because they bring the perspective of the experiences they’ve had. And we’re benefiting from that with Marcus. But we benefited from that with Mike Elko and Clark (Lea), and now with Mike. They were able to share with you their experiences and we benefit from it. It’s happening again in this instance with Marcus.

“So that input is great. It’s why we typically spend time in the offseasons comparing notes with some of the other programs. It was widely reported — I guess it’s two years ago now — that we had an exchange with Clemson that was really valuable in terms of our personnel sitting down together and talking about what we do.

“So we’re always looking for that. And Marcus came in with some very relevant experiences, very well-formed ideas about some initial things we could do. And we’re better for that.”

Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick applauds head coach Brian Kelly's decision to assign some new roles to assistants Brian Polian (left) and Mike Elston (right).

Q: The academic standards piece to the Notre Dame recruiting puzzle is looked upon generally as a hurdle by many, but Brian Kelly seems to project it as an asset. In either case, it provides a smaller pool from which to recruit. Do you believe Notre Dame is able to maximize the pool of players ND can get into school, keep in school and become cultural fits?

JS: “I do, and it is primarily because of Brian Kelly’s embrace of those distinctions. And his insistence on everyone involved in recruiting treat them as distinctions. It helps to define us in a unique way.

“The one thing you can know for certain is we’re not changing who we are in terms of the relationship of athletics and football to the university and how we fit. And so we don’t want that to change. No one should ever identify that as a reason that we can’t succeed.

“We can succeed, but we succeed by embracing the distinctions and accepting them as not limitations but as the assets that we have to work with.”

Q: What was the thinking about the redefined roles for assistant coaches Mike Elston and Brian Polian that included Elston becoming recruiting coordinator and Polian taking on the role of associate head coach?

JS: “These are Brian Kelly decisions, but I was very much supportive of them. I thought it was a great idea, because everybody doing the same thing every year doesn’t necessarily advance you.

“So reassigning people, asking your talent to take on different challenges or add new perspective, I think, is really positive, really beneficial. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it here: There’s a great underappreciation of the role of associate head coach in our system.

“I hate when people say, ‘Well, it’s just a title.’ It’s not a title for us. It’s an important role. Mike Elston played it exceptionally well. Brian Polian will too. But it’s a demanding role, because the head coach at Notre Dame has so many things to do and is pulled in so many directions.

“He needs a really good associate head coach. For me the corollary is the bench coach in baseball, that everyone recognizes is an important role. And so I think to give two of our coaches that experience — both of whom have the desire and potential to be really good head coaches someday — is a good thing for us to do.

“It makes our program better. It makes them better.”

Q: What’s the possibility of rescheduling a Navy-Notre Dame game in Ireland after COVID-10 prompted its cancelation last season?

JS: “We do want to return to Ireland. We love the experience. There are a lot of reasons why it works for the university. It’s also one more thing that helps distinguish the program, but I can’t predict today when that will happen other than to say we really want to get there and we continue to look at ways we may be able to do it.”

Q: What is the level of urgency or desire to reschedule the canceled game against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay (technically an Irish home game) and the canceled home games against Arkansas and Western Michigan?

JS: “In the case of Wisconsin and Arkansas, they’re home-and-homes. You’re trying to figure out how to get that done, because you don’t want to be on the wrong side of that, giving someone an away game and not having a home game in return.

“And to be fair to your colleagues at another school, you don’t want to ask them to do that. So those two become a really high priority.

“We look forward to playing Wisconsin in Chicago this year (a Badger home game), but we’ve got to recover that home game and so we are very much focused on when we can fit that in, at Lambeau. We want to do it in Lambeau, because everyone was very excited about that opportunity.

“That’s going to remain no matter when we do it, but we don’t want to split these things by too much into the future. It complicates an already impossibly complicated process of trying to knit the schedule together.”

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick says the school still plans to eventually expand the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

Q: Where does the Gug expansion stand, given the financial constraints of the pandemic? Is that on hold? Is there some progress and collecting some of the funding for that still going on?

JS: “It’s important to continue to invest in our facilities generally. The Irish Indoor Athletic Facility was the priority. And we got that done, and I think it’s been a great asset for us. And so now yes we turn to how to make the Gug more functional.

“Time flies. It’s a long time now in facility terms from when it was built (completed in 2005) until today. And it just doesn’t provide some of the functional space that we need. So with the indoor facility in place, where we are is sort of relooking at what we need. And we’re in the process of thinking about that. We’re not in the process of sort of doing anything tomorrow.

“We’re trying to nail down what this might look like phased in over time to give us what we need in the facility.”

Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) breaks free for a long run in the Crimson Tide’s 31-14 College Football Playoff win over Notre Dame, Jan. 1 at Arlington, Texas.